Science in Society Archive

Policies for Sustainable Food Systems, National and Global

Michael Meacher

Why our current agriculture and food production is not sustainable

There are five reasons why our current food system is not sustainable. First, the increasingly mechanised agriculture depends on oil, but the supply of oil is beginning to run out, or at least half of the 2 trillion barrels of oil available has already been used and oil demand from China, India and other major developing countries which are industrialising fast is rising so sharply that production cannot keep up with demand,  and permanent shortages of oil will kick in within a decade or less.  The price of oil will escalate to $100-$200+, and oil-driven food production will sharply decline.

Second, the growing shortage of water means that half a billion people now already live in water-stressed areas, and the UN expects this to rise 5-6 fold to half the world population by 2025.  This will lead to massive shifts of populations and water wars.  Frankly, the current use of water in agriculture is extravagant and utterly unsustainable. For example, US prairie farmers and East Anglian barley barons need 1 000 tonnes of water to produce 1 tonne of grain, plus 1 000 energy units are used for every 1 energy unit of processed food.  That is just not sustainable.

Third, the intensification of climate change has led to a ten-fold increase in the incidence and ferocity of climatic catastrophes in the past 40 years. These include major-scale hurricanes, cyclones, floods, as well as increasing drought, desertification, inextinguishable forest fires, which are now rendering more and more croplands unusable or infertile.  Half a billion of the world population now do not have croplands on which they can maintain themselves.  The latest UN report says one sixth of countries in the world (up to 30 nations) now face food shortages because of climate change. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates 160 000 now die every year from climate-change induced malnutrition, dysentery and malaria.

Fourth, the loss of biodiversity from monocultures imposed by industrialised farming, not least GM crops.  A quarter of the world’s GM crops are grown in Argentina, where huge areas were cleared to grow GM soya, especially Argentina’s pampas, previously one of the most organically productive areas in the world.

Fifth, long-distance transportation of food across the world is incompatible with the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2050.  Between 1968-88, world food production increased 84 percent and the world population 91 percent, but world food trade increased 184 percent (i.e. doubled), yet planes and cars are the fastest rising causes of greenhouse gas emissions.  To put that in household terms – a typical UK family of four emits per year 4 tonnes of CO2 from the house, 4 tonnes from the car, but 8 tonnes from production, processing, packaging and distribution of the food they eat.

So what should be done?

I have five proposals. First, we need a massive switch from highly mechanised, pesticide-driven agriculture to low-input/organic agriculture with energy saving up to 10-fold.  How?  The current food system is linear in design, treating inputs like energy and raw materials as infinitely available (which they are not) and the environment as infinitely capable of absorbing waste (which it is not).  This is not sustainable.  To change this, we need a tax system that factors in the full cost of all these finite items and uses the proceeds to subsidise organic, low input and localised agriculture systems.  In contrast, organic production systems are an example of sustainable circular methods of food production in harmony with the natural eco-system.  Is this happening?  Well, although sales of organic food in the UK have quadrupled from £260 million in 1997 to over £1 billion now, the one million acres now devoted to organic production is still only 2-3% of agricultural land in the UK.

Second, developing a sustainable food system should become a major Government policy based on setting targets for:

  • Sustainable food production
  • Import substitution
  • Fair trade
  • Local sourcing of food

These targets are to be achieved within specific timescales.  The Government’s Organic Action Plan Group, which I chaired, did set a target to increase the percentage of organic food consumed in the UK which was produced in the UK from 30 percent to 70 percent by 2010, but (as so often) the mechanisms to deliver it were delayed and weak – the UK was until recently the only country in the EU15 which did not offer post-conversion aid to new organic farmers.  Moreover, none of the other necessary objectives I have listed are currently subject to targets, apart from agri-environmental schemes to encourage broad and shallow adoption of very modest environmental standards.

Third, the very large external/environmental costs of transportation must be internalised. Transporting agricultural products in the UK (mainly big heavy goods vehicles) emits 1.1mt CO2 per year, and transporting beverages and other foodstuffs emits 3 mt CO2 per year.  So, transporting crops and food together accounts for one fortieth of all the UK’s CO2 emissions per year.  That is not sustainable and indeed, at the start of the foot and mouth outbreak, one of the reasons why disease took hold so quickly was huge transportation of animals across the country every day for marketing.  We have what is euphemistically called a ‘cheap food’ policy in this country – it is no such thing: it takes no account for example of costs of water purification after agriculture and pesticide run-off, nor of damage to the environment from long-distance transportation and exacerbating climate change.  At the very least, we should require all food products to be labelled to indicate the environmental impact of distribution, and organic and other assurance schemes should take the lead by introducing the proximity principle into certification.  But what is fundamentally needed is a revolution in environmental and social accounting, so that a flat-rate VAT is supplemented by a tax surcharge on over-exploitation of natural resources and on long-distance transport of certain agricultural products (those which can be cultivated locally under EU rules).

Fourth, sustainable food system should promote human health and certainly not harm it.  There is now increasingly convincing evidence that industrialised farming systems do the reverse.  Here are two pieces of evidence:

  • Latest Government figures, just released, reveal continuing massive increases in the use of pesticides – the area of crops sprayed with pesticides increased by another 1 million hectares in the last two years; altogether over the last decade the use of pesticides in the UK has increased by over 30 percent.
  • Evidence linking pesticides and brain diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease is now compelling – the Association of Clinical Pathologist reviewed the issue in depth in 2001 and concluded “there is an apparent consistency of epidemiological reports link Parkinson’s Disease with pesticide exposure” and the most recent finding is that farmers exposed to pesticides are 43 percent more likely to develop Parkinson’s Disease.  This urgently needs to be followed up by the Government.

But why is this not followed up by the Government?  Might the fact that DEFRA’s Pesticide Safety Directorate depends for 60 percent of its revenue on agro-chemical industries have something to do with it?

Fifth, globally, what is making so much of the world’s food systems unsustainable is climate change.  Drying out of croplands and the growth of continental and Indonesian fires on a rising scale and the rising frequency and ferocity of storms, cyclones, flooding and rising sea level, increasingly put at risk feeding of up to 9 billion people on this planet by 2050.  Climate change will only be reversed by fundamental changes in the world economy, national societies and our individual way of life, but the minimum requirement is already clear.

  • Massive switch out of fossil fuels to renewables, on a far bigger scale than any country (including the UK) has yet envisaged, that is what is now urgently needed, not a revival of nuclear power.
  • A system of contraction and convergence negotiated between the industrialised North of the world and the developing South, which requires the North to contract greenhouse gas emissions by over 60 percent by 2050 while allowing the South to industrialise cleanly, and overall keeping global greenhouse gas emissions within a level which scientists believe safe.
  • A huge uplift in energy efficiency is needed to end the current prodigious waste.  US power stations discard more waste heat than they generate; only one seventh of the energy from cars reaches the wheels; only one quarters of the energy from ovens reaches the food.

Sustainable food systems should be at the heart of global policy, not (as now) another device for exercise of imperial power by the strongest nations.  The pressure for reform could hardly be stronger.  If we do not learn lessons of what is facing us, our planet Earth will apply those lessons itself, but at a price which at worst could cast considerable doubt on the survival of our own species.

This article was a speech delivered at Sustainable World International Conference 14 July 2005, Westminster, London.

Article first published 14/09/05

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a duck?